And the document itself. A handwritten manuscript on hundreds of pages. In Greek, it would seem, but with long passages that were indecipherable. Reminded him of some of the Gnostic writings with their long chains of glossolalia, of voces magicae. Mumbo jumbo, probably, but it was not important that he and his colleagues believed in it, but just acknowledged that others did and were prepared to kill to further its demonic message.
He switched the briefcase from one hand to the other, for it was heavy and he was ninety-two years old. He saw his breath cloud the frozen air before him as he took another tentative step, always aware that the ice could be deadly.
The cloud separated for a moment and as it did the old professor saw a face materialize out of the bleak night before him.
Tanzler quickly jabbed the syringe into the side of Angell’s neck and hit the plunger. The poison shoved its way into the old man’s parchment-thin skin. He held him for a moment to steady the flow of the drug, and then slowly let him down onto the sidewalk. He withdrew the needle and grabbed the case from the dying man’s grasp.
He heard a shout somewhere along the pier behind him but could not afford to look back. Instead he made his way at a careful run over the icy streets. He was supposed to hand the case over to a German agent waiting
at the train station and then make his circuitous way back to Florida on his own.
The agent was late. Probably due to the weather. Tanzler looked around and saw there was no one else on the platform. A weak light spilled out from the ticket office, and he held the case close to his chest and tried to open it.
It was a simple leather case with brass fittings. There was a lock, but it was largely ornamental and no match for a determined thief. Tanzler popped it and looked inside.
All he saw was a pile of old paper with writing he could not make out. It was handwritten, and as he riffled through the pages he saw arcane symbols. He recognized none of them, but he did recognize their character. These were magic signs, occult seals of some kind. From his background in the occult arts he could sense the value of the manuscript. If nothing else, it was the private diary or record of a sorcerer long dead. Who knew what secrets it held?
For a moment, Tanzler thought of keeping it. The specter of Himmler and his black-uniformed thugs hovered in the background like an unspoken threat, but he was in America now and far from the reach of the Nazis.
He lifted out some of the pages, trying to see if he could make out any of the cursive script, when he felt a pressure in his back.
“Herr Tanzler?” The voice was quiet and soft, but the knife at his back was hard and sharp. He dropped the pages back into the case, and turned.
It was Vierick.
With a last longing look, Tanzler surrendered the case to the German agent who put his knife back in his pocket and turned on his heel without a look back. Tanzler was annoyed, not least because Vierick had not acknowledged his title. He was, after all, Count Karl Tanzler von Cosel.
George Sylvester Vierick, darling of the Prussian elite and of Herr Hitler himself, disappeared into the darkness and in a moment Tanzler heard a car’s engine turn over. Vierick was probably returning to New York City in the warmth and comfort of a luxurious automobile, leaving Tanzler alone to catch the train. Another little instance of one-upmanship. Very well. Vierick—and Himmler—would have need of him again. That much was certain. And then we would see who had the upper hand.
“PEOPLE OF THE BOOK”
Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
A Refugee Camp
The Syrian-Turkish Border, near Kobani
There were no streets, no pavement, just mud. Hundreds of gray tents, squatting like toads, all up and down the makeshift avenues. Women huddling around a water pump with plastic bottles to fill. Men sitting on woven mats or on plastic sheeting in the tents to keep dry, talking, smoking, or drinking tea. Children everywhere, their mothers doing their best to keep them clean and fed. Families of six, ten, twelve members or more. Some had been there for months; others for a year. A melange of languages: Turkish, Arabic, even French and English, and Kurdish. But mostly Kurdish.
It might be Turkish land but it was Kurdish territory. Across the border, in Syria, a new group calling itself the Islamic State had been shelling Kurdish positions up and down the border with Turkey and at times infiltrating saboteurs and assassins into the camps and towns. Kurdish resistance fighters, including the famous Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan, had organized themselves into a variety of credible militias—each with its own political ideology and allegiances—and were striking back (supplied with weapons by various foreign governments who were using the Kurds as a kind of proxy army against the Syrians, the Turks, the Iraqis, what
remained of Al-Qaeda, and the new Islamic State). The northern part of Syria, from Kobani in the west to the Semalka border crossing with Iraq to the east, was all under Kurdish control: a tenuous hold on territory that had been Kurdistan for centuries even though it was unrecognized—first by the Ottomans, then by the British and French after World War One, and finally by the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, not to mention the Turks—and existed in a kind of virtual reality outside the normal functioning of governments, borders, and custom. And, hidden within the Kurdish landscape like a system of caverns underground, were the Yezidi.
It was the Yezidi that Gregory Angell and his minders had come to find.
Angell had only asked that they stop at his apartment in Red Hook so he could pick up a change of underwear and a few reference materials. Aubrey went with him to the apartment, and looked around at the small quarters with its stack of books. The titles on the spines were indecipherable to Aubrey, written in alphabets or ideograms that meant nothing to him. There were a few in French, German and Latin that he could make out, but Angell avoided all of those and instead brought a few tattered paperback dictionaries in Kurmanji, Farsi and Urdu and stuck them in a backpack.
There were few ornaments or signs of a personal life other than the books. On a small table in the middle of the room that served both as dining table and as desk there was a Syrian incantation bowl, also called a “demon trap.” It was clay, and had an inscription in Aramaic inside running from the rim down to the center of the bowl in a neat spiral. It looked to be at least a thousand years old, if not older: a memento of Angell’s archaeological period in the Syrian-Iraqi border towns. Other than that, there was not much there to give someone a clue as to Angell’s family or friends.
Angell pulled the gun from his waistband, reluctantly, and raised an eyebrow at Aubrey.
“You can’t take that with you, and you shouldn’t leave it here. It might be best if I held onto it until you return.”
Angell emptied the automatic of its cartridges, remembering the one in the chamber, and handed it over to Aubrey who pocketed it without a second glance.
The SUV took them up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Van Wyck in Queens which brought them to Kennedy Airport. They were taking a commercial flight that evening for Frankfurt, after which they would take a connecting flight to Istanbul. After that, the itinerary was a little … well … murky.
As he sat in the waiting room next to Aubrey, Gregory Angell asked himself what he thought he was doing, and why he had agreed so quickly. Did Aubrey realize that he was only going through the motions at the university? That the joy had gone out of teaching once he understood that there was a gaping hole at the center of his worldview that was left behind when God had abdicated his throne at Mosul? He felt like he was teaching alchemy to chemistry majors. The entire basic premise was wrong.
And yet … that gaping hole in his worldview was matched by the gaping hole in his own heart. There had been nothing to rush in to fill the emptiness. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. You couldn’t prove it by Gregory Angell. Alcohol, drugs, sex … he had tried them all, and nothing worked. There was always the next morning, and that thundering Absence. And his beloved Glock.
On the one hand, the last thing he wanted to do was to go back to the place God died. He had no interest to go over the crime scene, like an FBI profiler looking for clues. He had no need of those memories, no desire to relive the anguish of that horrible moment, his own, personal 9/11, because he lived with it every day—and especially every night—of his life. Going back would prove nothing, solve nothing.
On the other hand, shouldn’t someone stand up for the dead?
It was all overwhelming, and that is when Gregory realized that the reason he went along was because he simply had lacked the will to resist. Aubrey had come into his life with a mission and an agenda, and Gregory had had neither. He wasn’t looking for redemption; nothing quite as trite as that. He needed a purpose, a distraction, and almost anything would do. He needed something that would delay as long as possible the moment Gregory knew was coming, when he would raise that nine millimeter to his head and create his own gaping, existential hole.
And then Aubrey had come along, with his soft-spoken delivery, his patience, and his insistence. Aubrey already knew all about Gregory’s past, his demons, even his family history. All the things that made Gregory,
Gregory. It was like an hour with a really good therapist. And in spite of himself Gregory was hooked.
They were calling his flight. He looked up to see Aubrey standing there with a folded newspaper under his arm.
“Time to go, Professor.”
The newspaper had been full of bad news, and they were flying right into the story. As they sat in their assigned seats and waited for take-off Aubrey pointed out a headline about a surge of radicals into Kurdish territory north and west of Mosul. They had already taken Fallujah and Ramadi.
“We are not a minute too soon. The people we need to see may not be around for very long. They will be moving across the border into Syria and then to Turkey. A massive wave of migration is starting and our contacts could very well be lost in the flood of refugees.”
Angell scanned the story and looked at the map that was printed in a sidebar next to the columns of text.
“That’s Yezidi territory. Sinjar is their ancestral homeland, their religious and secular capital.”
Aubrey nodded and, with knowledge gleaned from classified DIA reports, said “And they’re about to be slaughtered.”
Angell shuddered at the coincidence, synchronicity, whatever you wanted to call it. He had left all of that behind because of the slaughter of Yezidis in Mosul so many years ago, and now he was about to face another genocidal attack on the same people. He began to tremble with a nameless dread. There was something waiting for him there, something intrinsically evil in a way that transcended everything he had learned about ethics and morality. This was evil in a way that most humans did not understand it. Evil as a force of its own, something greater than the humans who were its pawns and willing servants.
As the Boeing 777 made its ascent Gregory looked outside at the landscape of New York City passing below their wings and wondered, briefly, if he would ever see the city again.
Angell had looked over a file Aubrey had handed to him on the plane once they were over the Atlantic Ocean and no longer in American airspace. It contained some transcribed cell phone chatter as well as excerpts from emails, Facebook entries, WhatsApp and Telegram messages, and the like.
It was a celebration of social media, and much of it was incomprehensible to Angell who tended to avoid leaving a digital trace if he could.
But there was something intriguing about the messages, taken in the aggregate. Individually, they didn’t seem to mean much but when they were seen as pieces of a larger puzzle an image began to form.
Part of the file consisted of the drawings that Aubrey had shown him in the restaurant on Montague Street, and there was another sheet of paper that had some sentences in what Angell knew to be Kurmanji: a Kurdish dialect, and one spoken by members of the Yezidi ethnicity. There was also an inventory of sorts in Arabic from the Baghdad Museum, a nondescript listing of shards and tools and ancient implements that was relieved only by the mention of a manuscript that supposedly dated from the ninth century in a line item that was highlighted in yellow. A manuscript that old would certainly be valuable, to a collector if not to an academic. The title was bizarre, to say the least. Al Azif: the buzz of insects. A work on entomology? He briefly wondered if it had been sold to raise money for terrorists. And then he realized that this was what they were looking for. A book. Al Azif? What the hell?
“Do you know the fragments of writing on that paper?” Aubrey pointed to the single sheet.
“It’s in Kurmanji, the same language that the Yezidi Black Book is written in. It’s classical Kurmanji; dating from … I don’t know … the tenth century? Earlier? It’s an Indo-European language, not a Semitic one like Arabic or Hebrew.”
“Can you translate it?”
Angell frowned. At that moment a flight attendant appeared to offer them beverages. Angell accepted only water; Aubrey treated himself to a glass of red wine.
“It’s … poetic. I suppose it would be, if it was old. Something about long lengths of time, death, and dying. Flowery stuff, but somehow also sinister. As if it represented a threat, or a dire prediction. Without a larger sample, it’s difficult to say what it means.”
Aubrey sipped the Chilean cabernet thoughtfully, a half-smile on his face. Monroe had been right, he thought. This timid, half-mad little professor is just the right person for the job.